The Paper That Covers Straws

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08/31/2007

Duffy Square, NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

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My new play, “Asterisk,” recently opened. It was workshopped at The Crucible of American Theater, which planned to produce it in their first season, but went bankrupt after their first production. I had a show fold at The American Theater of Actors, when the director’s wife asked for a divorce, and he lost his job, all in the week preceding casting. There was a staged reading at Personal Space Theatrics, who are still, as far as I’m aware, considering it. A second show at ATA went under in preproduction when the new director and producer got into an “artistic” dispute. In stepped Dean.

Checking my voicemail one day, I discovered a passionate message from Dean saying “Asterisk” was the “best original play I’ve ever auditioned for,” and he was sorry to hear that the production was canceled. Dean had acted in my last play, “Great Kills,” and, coincidentally, auditioned for the second ill-fated production at ATA. I returned his call to say thanks, and see how he was doing, but everything changed when he asked, “What do we have to do to get this play up for three weeks?” Dean was suddenly a first-time producer, and my play was finally on its way to being produced.

“Asterisk” was listed on Offoffonline.com, and NYTheater.com, and several other theater/entertainment websites. We hadn’t sold any tickets, but we weren’t discouraged yet. The Sunday before the play opened, The Post ran a blurb about it in their “The Rumble” section, a weekly Sports page about sports celebrities, above a story on Yogi Berra. This was a major coup for an Off-off Broadway show with a marketing budget that didn’t allow for stamps to mail the postcards we’d printed. Envisioning a sold out run, I asked Dean if he’d checked ticket sales. Not one ticket had been purchased. We’ll do a walk-up business, we told ourselves.

The first week, we played to houses of twenty to twenty-five mostly invited guests and industry. The publicity continued, however, with a feature article on MLB.com, a blurb in the Staten Island Advance’s “Five Spot,” followed by a feature article, and listings in several periodicals. We also received a favorable review in Backstage. The second week, Tuesday’s show had six people in the audience. One fewer than performers on stage. The Mendoza Line for theater. We cancelled Wednesday’s show because no one showed up. Dean pleaded with the cast to man the phones. Attendance picked up, with audiences of twelve, fifteen, and seventeen respectively, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Sunday’s matinee had three people in the audience. A father and his adult son in the front row, and an older man, sitting fifth row-aisle.

On Monday, our dark day, Dean and I brainstormed. We’d given up on recouping our investment, but we did want to perform in front of people. “Let’s hand out fliers,” I said, facetiously. Dean responded with, “We’ll offer a discount! Half off!” Attracting ten additional audience members to each performance was not only feasible, but would be a success, we reasoned. Whipping each other into a frenzy, we discussed getting the whole cast involved. “They do it for Broadway,” I said. “I mean, they don’t hand out fliers, but they do appearances.” We agreed to meet the next day at four, in front of TKTS.

The official TKTS in Times Square is closed for construction, and an interim one is open at Duffy Square, in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis on West 46th Street. Overflowing onto the sidewalk, the crowd is amorphous. And frustrated. Hotel guests pull bags back and forth. An attendant validates parking. Cars beep when they can’t get through to the garage. Several barkers are lined up at the curb, promoting shows. They don’t say anything. Just hand out postcards. They’re veterans. Hardened. Paid by the hour.

Dean jumps right in, pursuing a couple with his pitch. I watch the parade, trying to think of something to say. As the Venti Iced Americano I picked up at Starbucks on the way kicks in, I step toward a touristy looking couple and call out, “Wanna see a new play about baseball?” They look. I grin. Another touristy couple passes. “Wanna see a new play about baseball? – Ten bucks!” They smile. I smile. A group of tourists approaches. “Wanna see a new play about baseball? Ten bucks! Running through the end of the week.” They laugh. I smile broadly. A businessman walks by. “Wanna see a new play about baseball?” No response. An eccentric-looking New Yorker--toupee unkempt and kind of crooked, reminiscent of the tuft atop Michael Myers's masked head in “Halloween”--hurries by, and I don’t say anything. I start targeting tourists. My pitch gets more and more elaborate, giving them the “Wanna see a new play about baseball?” line, and ad libbing things like, “Third smash week!” and “Off-off Broadway: The heart of theater!” and “You can say you saw it first!”»

Some people ignore you. Some smile. Some respond with, “No,” or “No thanks,” or “I’ve already got plans.” One girl exclaims, “I hate baseball!” Most of the tourists courteously decline, like you’ve invited them to a party that they regretfully can not attend. A few people ask directions. A European man in a soccer jersey listens to my spiel, and then, in very tentative English, says, “This is a play?” “Yes!” I reply, enthusiastically. “There are any baseball matches tonight?” he asks. “The Mets are in town,” I say, and write directions to Shea Stadium on the back of a flier. An elderly couple approaches, and I give them my line, but they explain that they already have tickets to “The Lion King” and “The Color Purple.” They don’t seem in any particular hurry, so I ask them where they’re from. “Minnesota,” they tell me. “First time in New York?” I ask. “We were here forty-seven years ago,” they say. “Try to avoid the trap of going to the same places you went last time,” I quip, and we share a laugh. An affable, middle-aged Australian couple attempts to give me money for tickets on the spot, but I tell them to pay at the box office. Matthew Perry ducks past, and I say, “Wanna see a new play about baseball? – Ten bucks!” I don’t realize it’s Matthew Perry until after I ask – he’s in movie star disguise of baseball cap pulled down low and sunglasses. He just shakes his head.

I get into a conversation with a guy hawking for a show called “Sessions.” He’s wearing khaki shorts and a T-shirt with “Sessions” on it. He asks how my show’s going, and I lament how difficult it is to fill the seats, with the qualification that those who do come seem to really enjoy it. I inquire about his show, and he tells me that the critics panned it, but they’re getting a standing ovation every night. Leaning toward me, in a hushed tone, he says: “The playwright’s a multimillionaire.” All I can do is nod. “His father invented the paper that covers straws.” A group of older ladies dressed for the theater passes, several of them taking his glossy, over-sized postcard, while ignoring my flier.

Dean follows a Midwestern couple toward me, and stops them in their tracks with his hard sell. I listen as he tells them about the play, and details the press we’ve received. “I’m the producer. And star!” he says. I cringe. “That’s the playwright,” I hear, and turn to see the three of them staring at me. It’s at this moment that I have an out of body experience, where I’m soaring over midtown, and swooping down on Duffy Square and the Midwestern couple and Dean and myself. “How long did it take you to write?” the man asks, bringing me back to earth. “About three years.” They look impressed. “And two hundred drafts.” Their faces go blank. “The two hundred and first draft is in here,” I say, and pat the bag slung over my shoulder. They politely decline a flier. Dean says he’s hungry, and we head for pizza.

There are about twenty people in the audience that night. The only faces I recognize from TKTS are the Aussie couple. I’m in my customary seat in the last row, and they’re three rows in front of me. I keep an eye on them throughout the performance to try and read their body language. I’m really hoping they have a good time. I feel personally responsible. After the show, I intercept them in the lobby. They say that they liked it, wish me luck. The woman informs me that her husband played baseball. “I didn’t know they played baseball in Australia,” I say. “Oh, yeah,” he says, proudly. I thank them for coming, and the man smiles at me with, “No worries!”

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